Instruments as sight and sound: One luthier’s craft

“Approximations of Impossibility” is on display through Sep. 15 in the Palmer Gallery. It displays the pen and ink illustrations and protoype guitars of Dick Boak, the former manager of the Museum and Historic Archives for the Martin Guitar Company. Yvette Hu / The Miscellany News.

The rich texture of checking on mahogany, the smoothness of a maple grain finish, the fractal shimmer of pearl inlays, the rich blacks of ebony binding. Although these intricacies are not essential to sound, they are what distinguishes the world’s finest guitars.

It’s no secret that guitarists want an instrument that not only sounds good, but looks good, too. Dick Boak, whose art and instruments are on display in the Palmer gallery this month, has made the pursuit of artfulness and tone his life’s work.

Boak worked at Martin Guitars, venerated American manufacturer of acoustic guitars since the 19th century. But his career wasn’t always about guitars. As a student at Gettysburg College in the late ’60s, he dabbled in performance art and even geodesic dome building. He ventured out west, lived on an art commune and became engrossed in illustration. Those adventures informed the illustrations, portraits and guitars on display in “Approximations of Impossibility.”

The Palmer held a reception for the exhibit last Thursday. For the Vassar students, Poughkeepsiens, and professors that attended, the event was a little more star powered than they bargained for: Boak’s friends Steve Miller and John Sebastion visited. “It was deeply personal,” said attendee Iliana Rose ’21. “Dick was giving me lessons, I was singing along with John Sebastion. Even though you had these big names in and rock, It was a beautiful meshing of art, music, and friendship… It was an intimate look into his life.”

Yijia Hu / The Miscellany News

Miller and Sebastion both picked up guitars, and the attendees got an impromptu concert from some of the 60’s most iconic artists. Aimes Stevens ’22 was one of the lucky concert attendees. “The rhythms of the two guitarists were really cool, like they were both soloing along with each other. I had never really heard acoustic guitar like that.”

Boak joined the Nazareth, PA-based company on a bit of a whim. As he tells it on his website, he was teaching and producing wood art and instruments near Bethlehem, PA in the early ’70s. One day while driving on Route 22, an ad for Martin guitar factory tours caught his eye. He pulled off the road for what became a 40-year detour.

Boak was impressed with the craftsmanship he saw at the factory, but what really caused him to hang around was the smorgasbord of choice wood laying for the taking in the dumpster behind the factory. He would take the excess wood back to his home in Bethlehem and craft his “boakstruments,” musical oddities like mandolin-guitar mock-ups and Appalachian Dulcimers. When his dumpster-diving caught the attention of a factory worker, he showed off his creations. A job offer immediately followed. 

Once Boak got the employee discount on the free wood from Martin, he lavished his own instruments with an array of woods. One bass he made early in his tenure demonstrates his taste for variety. On the bass, comprised of 127 pieces of wood from 27 species, the cut-away protrudes like an ax handle, shaping the contours of the offset body. The color of the bass itself alternates between light tan and dark brown with darker stripes bundled tightly towards the center.

A six-string from 1978 has the similar offset silhouette of the bass, with a cut-away from the body that enables the player to reach notes on higher frets. Two-toned rosewood and mahogany stripes run parallel down the middle, surrounding the maple. It recalls ’70s station-wagon wood paneling vibes, in a sleek and sloping way. His instruments are beautiful but sturdy, not meant for the stage but a screened-in porch somewhere in the Catskills.

Boak’s art away from guitars is deeply focused on nature, but his background in mechanical illustration informs his continuing experimentation with symmetry. In an email interview, Boak explained that nature is a point of religious veneration: “I hold a deep respect for animals and plants and the physics of our existence in the universe…so in my early illustration, I kept mankind out of my work, instead preserving a natural purity.”

At first glance, Boak’s illustrations are psychedelic and free-flowing. A closer look reveals that their surreal effect is produced by tightly repeating patterns and lines. In a few illustrations he makes use of Yantras, a traditional Indian art form that repeats geometric patterns. In Boak’s work, they create forms that seem like they could refract indefinitely.

While humans are not the primary focus of Boak’s illustrations, “Approximations of Impossibility” showcases some truly striking portraits. A portrait called “The Gangster of Love” depicts his friend Steve Miller, of the Steve Miller Band, of course. Boak draws Miller in a perfectly candid moment, his face cracks a warm smile as he picks a guitar. A fedora caps his curly hair and a cigar dangles loosely from his mouth.

Most of the other portraits give the same effect. One especially cool portrait is of Canadian artist Ed Bartram. Boak was struck by the way Bartram captured rock formations in open water. The portrait appears normal until you see Bortram’s shirt, which is woven with mellow waves and lichen covered rocks. Boak’s subjects are vibrant and animated, expressing his subject’s passion and vibrance using only a black pen.

Often, artists distinguish themselves through tone, with electric instruments that come with distortion pedals. But for acoustic instruments, a distinct sound comes by collaboration between the musician and the luthier. Tone derives from the organic elements of the wood. Boak described this process, “In my case, the challenge was finding the optimum guitar size, woods, neck shape, ornamentation and price point for each artist’s unique musical style.”

 The prototypical art exhibit conveys a theme or a period. “Approximations of Impossibility” is not a typical art exhibit.  It displays a career characterized by detours and experimentation, but relentlessly grounded in technical mastery.

All photos by Yijia Hu/The Miscellany News

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